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Kia Rio
Kia Rio

Kia Rio ups the entry level bar

By Jim Bray
April 19, 2012

If the Japanese carmakers aren't looking over their shoulders and toward Korea already, the 2012 Kia Rio gives them even more reason to start doing exactly that. And they should.

Korean carmakers are definitely on a roll. The attack is being led by Hyundai, whose new Elantra is an excellent car that's winning all kinds of awards (and selling like hotcakes, judging by the number on the roads around here), but Kia is also nipping at Nippon's heels. And judging from the Kia vehicles I've driven over the past year, which range from SUV's to econoboxes, they've earned it.

So here we are at what's basically the bottom end of the marketplace, a niche occupied by such mainstream econobox choices as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa, etc.. Yet the Rio seems, for the most part, a step above the Yaris, Fit and Versa – if not the rest of the niche – in part due to its more-than-competitive power train and its more-than-competitive accoutrements.

Kia Canada sent a pair of Rios to test, a fairly basic EX five door and a loaded SX sedan. Either car would be easy to live with, though of course the extra toys on the sedan (which are available on the hatchback as well, of course) made it an even more pleasant experience.

The "five door" (which in the vernacular means it's a four door hatchback) adds the wagon-like utility that can be important to some, but otherwise it's basically the same car as the sedan. The sedan is a little more attractive – beauty, of course, being in the eye of the beholder – but that doesn't mean the hatchback is some kind of automotive troll, either: you won't need to keep it under a bridge to ensure your neighbors don't see it! A hatchback may not be the type of car that a high priced lawyer would drive, but it can be a good fit for small families.

Both vehicles, in fact, are cute as a bug's ear and, other than having engines that seem a tad reluctant to get going first thing in the morning (they seem almost human in that regard!), they're very nice performers. Sure, they won't set the world on fire with brute acceleration, but who in his right mind would buy a Kia Rio expecting to race it stock?

As for that morning reluctance, it just manifests itself by a bit of extra buzziness upon its initial startup, but it goes away soon enough and is easy enough to ignore.

Rios come with a 1.6 liter direct injection four cylinder engine Kia says pumps out 138 horses and 123 foot pounds. That may not seem like a lot in this age of Big Horsepower (and I must admit I pined for more ponies), but all things considered it's a more than adequate output. Compare it with the abovementioned Fit and Yaris, for example, and you'll find it quite generous compared to those competitors' respective 117/106 and 106/103 horses/torque figures.

Heck, that output is closer to Toyota and Honda's higher end entries, the Corolla (132/128) and Civic (140/128). Not bad for a supposed upstart.

And even though the Rio is closer in size to the Fit and the Yaris, it feels more like the larger Corolla and Civic.

Rios get their power to the front wheels via a six speed transmission – either manual or automatic. Both test cars had the automatic, which was a darn shame, since this class of car really cries out for a stick. Fortunately, the Rios' autobox has a "Steptronic" manual shift mode that adds a bit of extra control and fun – and the automatic shifts fine, though it may be a tad reluctant to downshift when you tromp the gas.

And once again, if you compare the Rio with the Fit (five speed manual or automatic) and Yaris (five speed manual, four or optional five speed auto), you're getting a transmission that should not only offer better performance but better economy as well.

Stopping the Rio are disc brakes all around, with ABS of course. Pedal feel is good, as is brake performance. The standard wheels are 16 inch, and this is what the sample Rio five door wore; the SX, with its higher trim level, had 17 inch wheels.

Rios feature an independent suspension up front, with a torsion beam butt, and it's surprisingly spry for a little car such as this. Steering is electrically-assisted rack and pinion, and it works well – imparting a reasonable feel to the driver.

Kia Rio
Kia Rio
Kia Rio

The Rio sedan bears a definite family resemblance to the higher end (and excellent) Optima sedan and, according to the company, "expresses motion and emotion that sets it apart from every other car in its class." It's a handsome look, indeed, and it makes the car look higher end than it is.

Likewise, the interior is modern and thought out very well. Standard features include power windows, door locks and side mirrors, an instrument panel that's attractive and efficient, and very good fit and finish. The SX sedan upped the ante by offering push button start/stop with smart doorlocks you operate from a little spot on the exterior door handles, heated leather seats (the EX has heated fabric seats) and automatic climate control.

Rios can come equipped with Kia's UVO ("your voice," apparently) audio infotainment system that gives you hands-free, voice-activated control of your music sources and cell phone. Pairing the phone is easy and the voice recognition works well. UVO also includes a digital jukebox with an in-dash hard drive you can use to store your favorite songs, though I didn't try this.

The downside to the more basic system is that its small, touch screen LCD doesn't offer "real" radio preset buttons for easy access to individual stations. Instead, you have to scroll up and down through the presets, which forces you to take your eyes off the road longer than it should. Sure, you get redundant controls on the steering wheel, and they're designed to be operated by feel, but they only let you scroll through your presets, not access them randomly.

The downside to getting the bigger and better screen that's available is that you're paying for a navigation system you may or may not need.

Rios are priced well, too. The sample five door EX came in at $18,795 Canadian and it was less Spartan than you might expect; heck, it even had the UVO system and a power-operated sunroof for that price! The sedan SX added nearly three grand to that total ($21,695 – taxes and other fees extra in both of examples) but for that you end up with a car that offers just about anything you could ask for in a car, with the possible exception of an onboard biffy.

U.S. versions of the Rio sedan SX start at $17,500 and the five door EX kicks off at $16,500.

That's a lot of car for the buck regardless of which side of the U.S./Canadian border you call home.

It appears, then, that Kia offers a "Rio" alternative in this market niche.

Copyright 2012 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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